Ransomware - What Is It & How To Prevent | All You Should Know

What is Ransomware?

Ransomware is prevalent, and many people keep talking about it, but only very few understand the nitty-gritty of it. This article explains the topic in straightforward terms. So, ransomware is a virus. It belongs to the category of viruses known as malware.

The word “malware” is a combination of the words – malicious software. Any software that is created to destroy files and data or to carry out any evil agenda is malicious software. So, malware is a dangerous type of virus. Ransomware belongs to this category of viruses.

You’ll never hear anything positive about ransomware.  It is created by cybercriminals to encrypt your valuable files or lock you out of your database entirely. Now, you may wonder why anyone will want to encrypt people’s data. It is because of money. They usually do it to extort money from the victims.

What will you do if you get work and switch on your system only to find out that you can’t access it because you have been locked out? What if the files in the system are your greatest assets, and they make money for you?

You will be desperate to do anything possible to gain access to the system. And this includes paying some money.  They’ll ask you to pay some money before you get access code or key.

The money people pay to gain access to their system or files is called ransom. The ransom involved is the reason why the virus is called ransomware. It is meant to extort money from victims. Imagine if you run a big hospital with the medical records of over 5,000 people, and you lose access to the records? It is better imagined.

You may also want to know why victims don’t trace the attackers to the payment details they provide. It is because many of them receive payment through their Bitcoin wallets. For people who may not be aware, cryptocurrency transactions thrive on anonymity and confidentiality. So, it is difficult to trace and track anyone through his crypto wallet.

In some cases, the criminals will steal your confidential files through ransomware and threaten to release the files to the world. They’ll ask you to pay some amount of money if you don’t want them to carry out their threats. Many big corporations, including Yahoo, have had a fair share of ransomware attacks over the years.

How Does Ransomware Work?

Ransomware works in different ways, depending on what it is coded to do. Most of them encrypt essential files, folders, or databases to prevent users from having access to the encrypted data. When any file is encrypted, it takes a mathematical key to decrypt it, and only the developer of the ransomware has or knows the key.

In other cases, ransomware pulls out information on financial transactions like credit card details, passwords, and passcodes. The information will be used to defraud the victim. It can even be used to contact the friends and associates of the victim to ask for money on his behalf.

Another reason to steal information is to threaten the owner that the information will be given out. Imagine if the secret formula of Coke (Coca-Cola) is gotten, and the attackers threaten to release the secret recipe to their competitors. If that happens, the company could lose billions of dollars.

Ransomware may also be used to create remote access to someone’s system to monitor his or her activities. While there are several evil activities that ransomware can be used to achieve, the few ones mentioned here are the most common. And it is often for monetary benefits.

Steps Required For Ransomware to Achieve its Aims

For every ransomware to achieve its objective, the following steps must be involved.

  1. 1. Compromise of target systems

Senders of ransomware continuously look for loopholes in the systems of potential victims before striking. So, they take advantage of systems whose security is compromised. Without security lapses, ransomware or other types of viruses cannot find their way into any system.

  1. 2. Presence in the system

Ransomware has to be in the systems physically before they can wreak havoc.

  1. 3. Control

Once the virus arrives on your computer, it will take control of your total system and encrypt all the files in the system. Once the files are encrypted, your access to files will be blocked usually with a notice, informing you of what to do and how to pay to regain access.

  1. 4. Notification takes place

As mentioned above, you will get a notice that ransomware has blocked your access and your files encrypted. The notice will tell you to contact the perpetrator through an email address. When you contact the person, you will get to know the amount to pay and the mode of payment for you to get the key to decrypt your encrypted files.

Due to the anonymity around Bitcoin transactions, those criminals often prefer Bitcoin as their payment method. The worst part is that there may be an ultimatum on the payment. Below is an example of the notice that victims will get when their systems are under attack.

  1. 5. Payment of Ransom

After the notice, many victims often have no choice but to pay the ransom as directed. After the payment, in a few cases, the attackers will give the code to decrypt the encrypted data or restore full access to the system.

Unfortunately, most of the attackers don’t give the key even after the ransom is paid. So, what you do? The answer is straightforward. Take all the necessary actions to prevent ransomware attacks. On that note, you need to keep upgrading the security facilities on your system and plugging all security loopholes.

How Does Ransomware Get into Your Computer?

Ransomware gets into computers in several ways, but the most common ways are just two of them.

  • Free online applications.
  • Phishing.

Free online applications

Some attackers present the virus as a free online application. Once a potential user clicks the download button, he will be downloading the ransomware instead of the purported application. Hence, you should be wary of free software.  Some of them are traps or baits. Once you bite the bait, you’re in for it.

Phishing

Phishing is a process by which criminals send links to potential victims through emails. Before they send such an email to you, they’ll monitor your email contacts. They may even hack into the email accounts of your contacts and send emails to you from those accounts.

The email is not the problem, but the ransomware link in it that they will ask you to click. The ransomware will begin to download into your system if you click the link. Here is a typical scenario.

You’ve been sending emails to your contacts about your job search. As a jobseeker, you may have applied for many positions, and you may have lost count.

When an attacker notices that you have been searching for jobs, he’ll send an email to you that a certain organization has approved your application for a certain position. He’ll include a link and call it an application form. You’ll be too glad to click the link, and once you do, ransomware will download into your computer.

This scenario above is just an example. There are different types of emails that they can send. Many of these emails will arrive in your spam folder. Hence, you have to be careful about clicking links in emails. When anyone sends you an email with a link, try to verify its origin before you click the link. This article will talk extensively about how to avoid ransomware attacks later.

Types of Ransomware:

There are several types of ransomware, but we have discussed in this article. Continue reading to know the common types of ransomware that you may encounter.

  1. 1. Scareware

This kind of ransomware appears as a pop-up and warns the potential victims that certain malware is on their system. The pop-up will include that the malware could damage their system if they don’t take urgent action. The pop-up presents a link to a supposed antivirus. If you bite such bait and click the link hoping to download an antivirus, you’ll be downloading ransomware.

  1. 2. Screen lockers

This kind of ransomware is designed to lock the whole screen. When the victims switch on their computers, they’ll find out that they can’t even get in. The attackers using screen lockers usually give victims an email address to contact. When they do, the criminals will ask the victims to pay a fine or ransom to regain access to their system. The attackers could also give some dumb reasons as to why their systems are locked.

  1. 3. Encrypting ransomware

This kind of ransomware encrypts victims’ data, and the attacker asks them to pay before they decrypt the files. Unfortunately, some attackers still don’t reverse the situation even after receiving payment. And encryption sometimes damages some files so much that they’ll remain useless even after decryption.

  1. 4. General viruses

A general virus is a kind of ransomware released into the internet to cause different types of damages to systems. When a lot of systems get infected, attackers will now sell the solution and make a lot of money from it.

  1. 5. Doxware

Doxware gathers confidential files from systems. The ransomware scraps files like nude videos or pictures from victims’ systems and send copies of the files to a pre-programmed destination. The attackers threaten to release the data to the public if the victims don’t pay the amount the attackers want them to pay.

  1. 6. Mobile ransomware

This ransomware targets mobile devices. It can either lock the victims’ phones or steal some data from the phone. The attacker will ask for a certain amount of money before they return the data or unlock the phone, depending on whichever is the case.

History of Ransomware:

Ransomware began in 1989 when a criminal distributed infected floppy disks with ransomware. It encrypted files stored on them. Victims had to pay $189 to decrypt their data. The culprit initiated the problem that would keep getting worse till today.

In 2006, the virus named “Archiveus – Trojan” took the world by storm. The attackers released it via the internet. It would encrypt all the files in the “My Documents” folder in computers. Victims had to purchase certain applications from a website to decrypt and retrieve their files.

The problem seemed to be going down until the emergence of Bitcoin.  The anonymity surrounding Bitcoin transactions made it very easy for cybercriminals to receive ransom without being traced or tracked. The cases of attacks increased since then. We have listed some of the worst ransomware below.

  1. 1. CryptoLocker: This one emerged in 2013. It affected up to half a million systems.
  2. 2. TeslaCrypt: This one was created to encrypt gaming files. It wreaked a considerable amount of havoc.
  3. 3. SimpleLocker: This ransomware is the very first one aimed at only mobile devices.
  4. 4. WannaCry: This ransomware attack is one of the most destructive. It kept moving from one machine to the other on its own. The NSA created this monster for a different purpose before cybercriminals stole and unleashed it.
  5. 5. NotPetya: A not-so-reliable source says that Russia developed this ransomware and wanted to use it against Ukraine.
  6. 6. Locky: This one is another deadly attack. It emerged in 2016.
  7. 7. BadRabbit: This ransomware attacked media companies in Asia and Eastern Europe.

Unfortunately, the trend may not change anytime soon. What you can do is try your best to avoid ransomware attacks.

Experts often advise people not to pay the ransom. They believe that if victims don’t pay ransom or fine, hackers won’t be in business. The non-cooperation will discourage them from creating more ransomware.

While this is true, it is not realistic. When you’re hit, your major focus will be to retrieve your encrypted data. If it costs you less to pay the ransom than to retrieve your files through other means, you won’t hesitate to pay the ransom. According to a reliable source, more than 66% of victims pay the ransom.

How to Prevent Ransomware – 11 Tips

Viruses are generally dangerous because they arrive and begin to operate quietly on your computer. You only get to know of their presence when the results of their actions start manifesting. Long ago, it used to take days or weeks for viruses to wreak havoc. Now, it is just a matter of hours before ransomware takes over your system completely.

You may only begin to find a solution when you notice an anomaly in the behavior of your system. If it were to be a network of several computers that gets attacked, the virus will first get to the root of the network and damage it before anyone notices it. Also, it may lock every workstation or node out of the entire network.

While there are several applications designed to prevent ransomware or all other kinds of viruses, it is necessary to remember that cybercriminals keep changing their modes of operation, and they keep improving, so no security facility can work for long. The best way to prevent ransomware attack is to be several steps ahead of the criminals with the following tips:

  1. 1. Keep your operating system up-to-date

Software developers keep checking for security loopholes in their application. Whenever they come across any, it will be plugged through updates. Hence, you should always update your applications at the very first prompt. The update could be for patching up some security vulnerabilities.

  1. 2. Don’t install software indiscriminately

You must have heard that nothing is completely free. Many free applications on the internet are developed for other reasons. Ransomware is sometimes presented as a free application, usually an antivirus. It is made free to attract as many people as possible. When you download it, you may be downloading another ransomware.

  1. 3. Don’t act on pop-ups

When you see a pop-up telling you that your device is running slowly and you may need to download a free application to fix the problem, don’t rush to click any button. The question is, how did the pop-up gain access into your system to find out that it is running slowly? When you see such pop-ups, ignore them completely.

  1. 4. Install appropriate software

You need an antivirus that can detect any malicious program as it arrives on your system. You also need a whitelisting application that prevents unauthorized applications from being able to execute. That way, even if ransomware or other kinds of viruses gain access into your system, they may not be able to operate.

  1. 5. Always back up your files

It is very important to back up your files continuously. Once all your files have been backed up, even when you get a notice that some of your files have been encrypted and you have to pay a certain amount of money to get them decrypted, you’ll only ignore the notice and retrieve the copies of the affected files.

  1. 6. Decentralize your database

When all your records are in one location, they’ll be vulnerable to attacks. On the other hand, if they are decentralized, even if a section is hit, the damage will be restricted to only the section that is hit.

  1. 7. Don’t click links from emails

When you receive emails from even an acquaintance, you should call the person to confirm the origin of the link before you click it. On the other hand, you could ignore the link and delete the mail.

  1. 8. Let a third-party IT support team partner with your in-house IT team

Most organizations either use an in-house IT team or outsource the task to third-party IT teams. You need to understand that both in-house and third-party IT support teams have their benefits. So, to enjoy the advantages of both of them, you should make use of them. That means you can have your in-house IT team and also hire third-party teams. When both teams work hand-in-hand, the security of your system will be formidable.

  1. 9. Restrict access to sensitive information

Sometimes, a hacker gains access to a whole system through a single compromised node. Also, it is not uncommon for an aggrieved employee to damage sensitive files or leak confidential files to the public. For example, do you remember the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal? The whistle was blown by an aggrieved employee of Cambridge Analytica. To avoid all these issues, restrict access to sensitive or vital files.

  1. 10. Put several security layers in place

Don’t rely on only one security feature. It is better to put several layers of security in place. When attackers beat one feature, they’ll find others waiting. This situation is similar to the way kings’ fortresses were built in those days with several concentric walls surrounding the castle.

When enemies’ soldiers break the security of the outermost wall, they’ll face the next wall. Before they break through a couple of wars, they’re either captured or the king, successfully evacuated.

If any of your security facilities fail, others will serve as support. The number of security features in place, the harder it is to break into your system.

  1. 11. Stay up to Date

As mentioned above, you should always upgrade and update all your security facilities. However, avoiding cyber-attacks goes beyond that. You also need to be aware of every new security feature. Try as much as possible to take note of the latest tricks, gimmicks, applications, and hacks that criminals use to send ransomware into systems. The more knowledgeable you are, the more you can avoid it.

Hackers work tirelessly to undermine all existing security features, and they often succeed with time. This is the reason why no security functionality or application works for a long time. So, you need to stay up to date with the latest security applications. By the time hackers break your fourth security application, you would have installed the seventh one. You have to be several steps ahead of them.

Conclusively, now, you have better information about ransomware. You know why it is created, how it is used, and how to prevent it. The best time to apply what you have learned is now. Do all you can to prevent ransomware attacks. Not every victim gets to recover fully. Prevention is always cheaper, better, and smarter than cure.